For a time in the early '60s, Gardner McKay was considered one of the hottest male stars in the television firmament -- he was one of those rare male television stars whose appeal to women was so great that his looks alone carried the series in which he starred for its first season, as he became a better actor. McKay never did translate that stardom to the big screen, but instead pursued a career as an author and playwright. Born George Cadogan Gardner McKay in New York in 1932, he was the son of advertising executive Deane McKay and his wife, Catherine. Gardner spent a major part of his childhood in Paris and attended Cornell University until his father's death. McKay tried to work in the advertising field, but walked away from it, out of boredom, and instead turned to art. He was talented enough as a sculptor to sell a piece to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but he soon found that this area of endeavor didn't really interest him, either. He did a little modeling work in New York City, just to pass the time, and then turned to theater and acting in his mid-twenties. With his dark good looks, his lack of experience was almost irrelevant for movies and television, and it wasn't long before he was noticed by casting directors.
McKay's screen career began with a small role in the movie Raintree County (1957), and he went on to work in episodes of television series such as The Thin Man and Boots and Saddles. One day in early 1959, the 26-year-old McKay was spotted by a producer who, taking note of his rangy six-foot-five physique and dark, handsome looks, offered him the starring role in an upcoming series. The program, being produced by 20th Century Fox's television division, was called Adventures in Paradise.
The series cast McKay as Captain Adam Troy, skipper of the Tiki, a three-masted schooner that traveled the Pacific, carrying cargo and passengers to and from exotic locales. The program was shot partly in Hollywood and also on the island of Tahiti, and was credited as the creation of James A. Michener, who was then one of the top-selling authors in the world, and also closely associated with stories of the South Pacific (indeed, his work had been the basis for the musical South Pacific). Michener's name sold the series to the sponsors and the ABC network. But it was McKay's good looks that sold the show to the public, especially the women. He was shockingly handsome, reminiscent of a young Laurence Olivier, and as a small-screen figure, he threaded a very fine needle for the viewing audience -- macho enough to be admired by the men, who wanted to see themselves like Adam Troy, and gorgeous enough so that women were compelled to tune in, and imagine themselves as the object of his attentions.
Upon Adventures in Paradise's premiere in October 1959, McKay's picture was plastered on the covers of some of the most widely read magazines in the country, all proclaiming him as the new heartthrob for female viewers. The only problem, at least initially, was McKay's acting ability, which was almost nonexistent, at least in terms of his being a leading man capable of carrying the series. But the combination of his looks, the exotic settings, and some intriguing stories kept the show on the air long enough for McKay to improve his skills in this area, and by the second year, the series had its bearings. Adventures in Paradise ended up running for three seasons, but by then McKay tired of the publicity and the constant press spotlight, especially concerning his romantic involvements with various well-known women, including the model Suzy Parker and an array of actresses including Julie Newmar (who, in terms of her nearly six-foot height, he compared in print to a mountain worthy of conquest), Dorothy Provine, Joan Collins, and Loretta Swit.
McKay later appeared in the movie The Pleasure Seekers (1964), but for the first few years after the series ended he mostly occupied himself with traveling the world. He was an expert seaman in real life, and traveled the Pacific and the Caribbean on his own boat, in addition to hiking through the Amazon jungles and journeying across the deserts of the Middle East. He made one more feature film, I Sailed to Tahiti With an All Girl Crew (1967), which co-starred Diane McBain -- an actress with whom he had also been linked romantically. Indeed, in some ways that movie was almost an extension/parody (albeit in color) of Adventures in Paradise.
McKay quit acting in 1970, however, and turned to writing. He was a drama critic for a time at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and subsequently authored several plays and books, including Master of the Seas, This Fortunate Island, and Silver Eyes, and the award-winning Sea Marks. One of his plays, Untold Damage, was produced as a made-for-television movie in 1973. McKay occasionally re-emerged in public life, primarily as a playwright, although his earlier pop-culture presence was also periodically recalled -- women of the older baby-boom generation seemed to remember him vividly, and he was immortalized by composer/singer Jimmy Buffett in the song "We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About." And when one of his plays was produced off-Broadway in New York during the 1980s, his previous stint as a TV star was recalled anew in local press coverage. McKay died of cancer in 2001. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi